The controversial $6m movie premiere for 2001’s Pearl Harbor

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Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor had cost Disney around $140m to make – and it needed a premiere to match: it’d be fair to say it went for it a bit.

Disney, come the end of the 1990s, was worried that filmmaker Michael Bay was going to take his wares elsewhere. At this stage – in Disney’s pre-Marvel and Star Wars era – Bay had generated back to back hits for the studio with The Rock and Armageddon. And – appreciating there aren’t that many people who go out to bat for his style these days – he was a hugely in demand Hollywood director.

As I wrote here, he was at one stage set to tackle the low budget thriller Phone Booth post-Armageddon, at a point where pretty much any Hollywood studio would have given him whatever he wanted. Disney lured him towards a different project, and the cheque it ultimately wrote to tempt him to make Pearl Harbor was still staggering for the time. It led to difficulties throughout the production, with Bay threatening to quit more than once, and Disney fretting about rising costs.


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Still, when the film was in the can, it was time for the film to answer its critics. Was Michael Bay really the man to make a story about a moment in World War II that’d cost so many people their lives? Could he get the tone of that right, whilst also delivering a war movie made in the shadow and arguably the template of James Cameron’s Oscar- and box office-conquering Titanic?

Don’t worry, this isn’t that article.

Instead, I wanted to look at how Disney elected to promote the film it had gambled hard of, and in particular its jarring premiere. Full disclosure: I did not attend the premiere, but some 2000 other people did. And this wasn’t your standard red carpet affair, where a posh cinema is hired out and pictures are taken. No, Disney wanted something in keeping with the size of the blockbuster it had just funded, but also to capture the feel of the World War II setting.

What its marketing department settled upon still stands out as one of the most uneasy, and biggest, movie premieres of the decade.

Pearl Harbor movie

The studio splashed out some $5-6m by hiring the US aircraft carrier John C Stennis to host the event. It put on display too a B-25 bomber and P-40 fighter as part of the event. The ship itself sailed especially for six days from San Diego to Pearl Harbor itself in Hawaii, and stars were transported over for the big day on May 21st 2001. I’m going to suggest they didn’t get there via economy.

But Disney also knew it had a balancing act here, and having a bloated, expensive party at the location of an attack that killed 2,403 people wasn’t necessarily the best of looks. There was little getting away from the fact that it was holding a premiere on a huge vessel, that was floating on the very water where so many people perished. For many whose bodies were never recovered, their grave.

It thus made sure that on the guest list, as well as local Hawaii dignitaries, were survivors of the attack, who could see just what Michael Bay had made of their story. Naturally, they had to walk the red carpet first, before the cast and crew came along. Pixar’s John Lasseter was shuffled in once the veterans had their moment in the sun, and then the big name arrivals could follow.

Just to add a bit of added controversy, it transpired that that cost of transporting the ship from San Diego to Hawaii had been picked up by the US Navy rather than Disney, although as Commander Bruce Cole told the New York Times, “it’s not an additional cost to us”, explaining that had the John C Stennis not being hosting a Hollywood party, it would have been at sea on training exercise. The outlet also noted that “Disney will pay for most of tonight’s party and will reimburse the Navy for certain ”extra” expenses, like the cost of the crane to load the screen and stadium seating on deck”.

The Navy further argued that it benefitted from the publicity of one of its vessels being international news in this way. The full New York Times article is here.

Pearl Harbor movie

It should be noted that proceeds of the premiere benefited appropriate charities. Furthermore, Disney was clearly conscious of what it was potentially walking into, and built into the premiere a minute’s silence for those killed in the attack.

Furthermore, there was an attempt to add a sombre undertone to the occasion. One of the stars of the films, Ben Affleck, told The Guardian that “the message is not one about the United States or Japan or the second world war, right or wrong. It’s about what a terrible cost it is for people to have to go to war and what a terrible thing it is”.

But once that was out of the way, this was very much a premiere party, and it had the requisite effect: the event generated headlines around the world, even if in some quarters there felt something just a little crass about it all.

It set a record too: it was the largest and most expensive outdoor cinema screening in the world at the time. I do sometimes wonder if one of the founders of Secret Cinema looked at the footage and a lightbulb went off in their head.

For the actual screening of Pearl Harbor, that people sat in place for three hours on the ship to watch, a movie screen was assembled on the flight deck of the carrier, and grandstand seating was erected.

Here’s footage of the event, and the party…

Disney went for scale again when it then held a sizeable premiere in Japan, but the tone was necessarily different. Sold not as a war film but a love story for its release there, 30,000 people turned out for the event. The studio needed the film to hit, given the expense it had put into making the movie, but there was still some nervousness – and added security – for the more conventional premiere event. As it happened, the event went off without a hitch, but it failed to catch fire in Japan. Instead, the dominant non-US territory for the film was Germany, that added $28m to its gross, with the UK not far behind at $18m.

In the end, Disney won its Pearl Harbor gamble, but at the expense of its relationship with Bay. Frustrated by the behind the scenes tensions, the pair parted ways and haven’t worked together since. That story is told in one of our podcast episodes, here.

Tellingly, Disney hasn’t attempted a film premiere on an aircraft carrier since either…

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